When the fighting broke out in Georgia, it was Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and not Russia's new young president who stepped up to lead the country's tough response.
The ongoing conflict has confirmed what has become increasingly obvious in recent weeks: Putin is still the one in charge.
President Dmitry Medvedev has been the Kremlin's voice in recent days, but Putin set the tone from the beginning. And when Medvedev suddenly made an uncharacteristically blunt statement, he seemed to be imitating the mannerisms and language of his powerful mentor.
After Georgia opened fire on the Russian-backed separatist region of South Ossetia, Putin was the first to speak to the nation on television. He also was the first to confer with world leaders, including President Bush, in Beijing for the opening of the Olympics.
Putin promised a strong Russian retaliation, which was not long in coming. Russia rolled hundreds of tanks into Georgia and bombed from the air.
On his way home from China last weekend, Putin stopped in southern Russia to see South Ossetians who had fled the fighting. He was shown repeatedly on television bounding down the steps from the aircraft, sending the clear message that he was ready to take charge.
Even critics impressed
Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili had little doubt who was behind the Russian attack. Speaking on a conference call with foreign journalists Wednesday, he said he had tried to reach "President Putin, or Prime Minister Putin," but was unable to get through.
Even Putin's critics were impressed with his performance in the first days of the conflict. "For the first time in my life I was amazed by the mastery with which Putin is able to hold onto power," political commentator Yulia Latynina wrote in the online Yezhednevny Zhurnal.
In contrast, Medvedev chaired a meeting of his Security Council over the weekend and made a statement worthy of the former law professor he is: "In accordance with the constitution and federal law, I, as president of Russia, am obliged to protect the lives and dignity of Russian citizens wherever they are located. We won't allow the deaths of our compatriots go unpunished."
Russia has given passports to residents of South Ossetia, which broke from Georgia in the early 1990s.
By Tuesday, the Kremlin image makers seemed to understand that Medvedev as commander-in-chief had to put in a better performance. And as president, he was the one who needed to meet with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was in Moscow on a EU-sponsored peace mission.
But when their joint news conference was delayed, the word circulated among reporters in the Kremlin that the two presidents were waiting for Putin. As if in confirmation of this, the prime minister's motorcade was seen zooming through central Moscow toward the Kremlin.
This created the impression that Putin could not really trust Medvedev or Medvedev needed reinforcement, said Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "In any case I think this too is an indirect indication of who is more important in this ruling tandem," she said.
When Medvedev walked out with Sarkozy for their televised news conference, he spoke like Putin.
"You see, thugs differ from normal people in that when they smell blood, it's hard for them to stop," Medvedev said. "So we are forced to resort to surgical intervention."
He punched the words with cold anger, but his anger and crime-world language seemed forced, an imitation of Putin's naturally flowing rebukes.
It was perhaps his toughest public statement since becoming president in May.
Medvedev had little choice but to take a tough stance since Russians remember all too well how Putin handled similar situations, said political columnist Georgy Bovt.
"They expect the same from Medvedev," Bovt wrote in The Moscow Times. "Otherwise, people would begin to call into question his ability to run the country and accuse him of being spineless."
But Russians increasingly have seen Putin as holding the real power in the country. A poll by the independent Levada Center last month showed that 36 percent of those surveyed see Putin as more powerful, compared with only 9 percent for Medvedev.
This was a sharp divergence from a similar survey in March, the month Medvedev was elected, when both leaders polled around 20 percent. In both surveys nearly half of those polled said they had equal powers.
The poll, conducted nationwide in late July among 1,600 people, has a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.
Expanded power for prime minister
The presidency is the far more powerful position under Russia's constitution, and both men have stressed that this will not change.
But a prominent Russian sociologist who studies the Russian political elite said Putin is steadily expanding the powers of the prime minister. Many members of the government who used to answer directly to the president, including the defense minister and foreign minister, now take their orders from Putin, said Olga Kryshtanovskaya.
"We have never had such a powerful prime minister," she said at a recent news conference.
Since becoming president, Medvedev has put forward several new programs, including one to fight corruption and restore respect for the law. Some have read this as veiled criticism of Putin's eight years in office and an attempt by Medvedev to push Putin aside.
Kryshtanovskaya said this is absurd. These claims have been promoted by the hardline Kremlin camp of former KGB officers who opposed Putin's choice of Medvedev as his successor and now hope to undermine him, she said.
Medvedev, 42, is an integral part of Putin's team and has no incentive to go against his "political father," she said.
This doesn't mean that the Russian political system is not evolving with Medvedev as president.
"The political process can always be looked at either through a telescope or a microscope," she said. "If you look up close, of course, much is changing. But if you take the longer view, it turns out that the system was totalitarian and continues to be totalitarian," she said.